The US national team opens up its 2012 campaign hosting Venezuela at The University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Saturday (9 pm ET, ESPN3, Galavisión). The two countries have met on three occasions before, with the US winning two and drawing one of their previous encounters with La Vinotinto.
After a slow start to his tenure as US head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann will be hoping to start 2012 with a bang after some encouraging displays away to France and Slovenia closed out 2011.
The last time the United States squared up against Venezuela was on May 27, 2006, at Cleveland Browns Stadium in a friendly. The US ran out 2-0 winners courtesy of two clinical finishes from Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey.
Ching opened the scoring in the 36th minute with a sublime volley after being picked out with a pinpoint cross from Bobby Convey. Dempsey doubled the lead in the second half after good work from Donovan released DaMarcus Beasley, who fed the ball beautiful onto Dempsey’s head and he buried the ball into the back of the net.
The game in Ohio was the penultimate match before the US left for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The US ultimately didn’t qualify for the knockout stages, after failing to win any group games against the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana.
The USMNT’s results under Klinsmann could have undoubtedly been better in 2011. Yet a fresh start to the 2012 year against Venezuela in Arizona, after a week long training camp and two scrimmages against the U-23 side at The Home Depot Center, will be much welcomed by the German after a tough start to his tenure in charge of the US.
Klinsmann will be using the outing against Venezuela to test several fringe players and newcomers on the international scene. However, with the shaky set of results hanging over him from 2011 — in seven matches, the US recorded two wins, one draw and four losses — the US head coach will be hoping to record a much needed win over South American opposition.
The big story for the US heading into their opening fixture of the year is the inclusion of several new faces, as Klinsmann looks to give up and coming players the chance to shine on the big stage.
There are five players who will all be earning their first cap for the US national team, if they step onto the field against La Vinotinto. Bill Hamid, A.J. DeLaGarza, Jeff Parke, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong will all be hoping to make their debuts after Klinsmann ran the rule over both the full squad, and the U-23 players in a grueling week of training.
The young trio of Teal Bunbury, Zusi and Sapong from Sporting Kansas City seem to be one of the most intriguing questions going into this match. Zusi in particular looks to have shone during training camp and the two scrimmages, as the attacking midfielder scored in the 1-1 tie with the U-23 side on Tuesday evening.
Seattle’s 29-year-old defender Parke finally got a call-up after spending seven years in MLS, and alongside LA youngster DeLaGarza will hope to prove valuable to Klinsmann’s future defensive plans after the US kept only one clean sheet in his first seven games in charge.
The experienced core of the squad comes from Benny Feilhaber who has appeared 38 times for the US alongside Heath Pearce and Ricardo Clark, who have both won 32 caps. The youngest player once again is 19-year-old Juan Agudelo, who has attracted increasing interest from the EPL and Bundesliga over the MLS offseason, though the Red Bulls forward is out with a sprained ankle. Kyle Beckerman has also been ruled out of the next two matches. Agudelo suffered a right ankle sprain on Jan. 13 in the scrimmage against the U-23 side. Beckerman entered the camp with a groin issue and has not been able to fully participate in the exercises throughout the three weeks. Both players will remain with the team until after the Venezuela match and then continue rehab in the United States when the team departs for Panama.
Attacker Brek Shea will also look to continue his good form for the US on the left-flank after his training stint with Arsenal. Among this current US roster, Shea was the most frequently capped player for the USA in 2011 with eight appearances. Shea, a member of the 2011 MLS Best XI, is one of only three players to appear in all seven matches since Klinsmann took charge along with Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard. Jermaine Jones will add experience to the midfield after his late addition to the squad due to his eight-match ban for stomping on an opposing player in the Bundesliga while playing for Schalke.
Klinsmann is relishing the chance to put his side up against a top South American outfit. "Obviously we are very excited to be playing a team of such high quality," Klinsmann said. "We are slowly trying to raise the bar for our team, and this is an awesome opportunity for the players to be challenged against one of the top teams in the world." Klinsmann has spoken in length about the new style and identity he hopes the US national team will find and along with fans, he hopes the young pretenders — especially in the offensive areas — will be able to provide the much-needed spark the US lacked in 2011.
The US will not be facing the best side Venezuelan head coach César Farías has to offer. Far from it. However the South Americans have a vast array of talented players to chose from, especially after their best-ever fourth-place finish at the 2011 Copa América, when they lost out to Paraguay 5-3 on penalties in the semifinals. The Venezuelans showed their penchant for staunch defensive play throughout the tournament in Argentina, recording shutouts in three of their six games.
The average age of the Venezuelan squad for the two friendlies against the US and Mexico is just 24.2, as Farías similarly looks to give some youngsters international experience. Only six players the squad of 24 have more than 15 international caps, as key players Tomás Rincón, Giancarlo Maldonado and Nicolas Fedor have all been left off the roster. Maldonado is the country’s all-time leading scorer with 22 goals in 65 appearances.
Mineros de Guayana and Deportivo Anzoátegui both provide five players each to the squad, in fact the only four players ply their trade outside of the Primera División Venezolana, two of whice are MLSers Emilio Rentería and Alejandro Moreno.
Chivas USA’s Moreno has struck three goals in 39 appearances for his home country, while Columbus forward Rentería is still searching for his first international goal in what will be his ninth Venezuelan cap. Miguel Mea Vitali is also a player to look out for, as the experienced midfielder will be doing his best to help the youngsters be playing alongside him.
Players to watch
USA - Graham Zusi. The lively 25-year-old Kansas City midfielder proved his worth in MLS during 2011, with five goals and seven assists. He has impressed during camp and will likely start in an advanced role.
VEN - Richard Blanco. The forward is hoping to impress after a stint away from the national team. His predatory goal-scoring instinct could prove dangerous to the US defense if they take him lightly.
USA: Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake); Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), A.J. DeLaGarza (LA Galaxy), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland/Denmark), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Jeff Parke (Seattle Sounders); Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt/Germany), Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado Rapids), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/Germany), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders); Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Venezuela: José Leonardo Morales (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), Alan Liebeskind (CD Lara/Venezuela); Gabriel Cichero (RC Lens/France), Carlos Salazar (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela) Carlos Rivero (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), José Manuel Velásquez (Mineros/Venezuela), Andrés Rouga (Deportivo Táchira/Venezuela); Francisco Flores (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), Joel Casseres (CD Lara/Venezuela), Miguel Mea Vitali (CD Lara/Venezuela), Edgar Pérez Greco (CD Lara/Venezuela), Rubert Quijada (Monagas/Venezuela), Agnel Flores (Mineros/Venezuela), Alejandro Guerra (Mineros/Venezuela), Javier González (Deportivo Petare/Venezuela), Diomar Díaz (Deportivo Petare/Venezuela), Diego Guerrero (Deportivo Táchira/Venezuela), Ángel Chourio (Deportivo Táchira/Venezuela); Richard Blanco (Deportivo Petare/Venezuela), Emilio Rentería (Columbus Crew), Alejandro Moreno (Chivas USA), Hermes Palomino (Chernomorets/Bulgaria), José Reyes (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), Darwis Machís (Mineros/Venezuela).